Minnesota farmers skeptical of free nitrate tests

Wisconsin State Farmer

NEW ULM, MN (AP) - A south-central Minnesota county rejected the Department of Agriculture's offer for free nitrate well tests.

Brown County rejected the state program in December after residents voiced fears that the data could be used to target farmers for additional regulations, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

Nitrates in drinking water can come from failing septic systems, fertilizer and animal manure.

"The assumption is that all these nitrates come from farmers and from fertilizer when they're coming there naturally from the natural break down of organic matter in the soil," said Greg Bartz, president of the Brown County Farm Bureau. "So, (we're) being blamed for something that is not our fault."

Nitrates can come from failing septic systems, fertilizer and animal manure. High nitrate levels can cause health risks, such as a life-threatening blood disorder known as blue-baby syndrome.

Environmental groups are critical of the county's decision. Almost 20 counties across the state have agreed to participate in the program and Brown County is the first to turn it down, said Trevor Russell, program director for Friends of the Mississippi River.

"For a county to sort of deny its families the chance to find out if their drinking water is safe is certainly surprising and not the trend we've seen so far," Russell said.

Brown County offers free water testing for families with newborns, county officials said.
The department began the program in 2013 to give homeowners free information about their drinking water and to gather data about the state's groundwater. Testing water costs range from $17 to more than $100, depending on the number of contaminants being evaluated.

The program focused on about 300 townships vulnerable to nitrate contamination because of farming and soil type.

"What we wanted to do was really start to target which agricultural areas of the state should we really start to take a good look at, and help citizens understand what they're drinking," said Bruce Montgomery, manager of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's fertilizer nonpoint section.